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Reviewed by:
  • Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge by Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie
  • Elspeth Whitney
Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge. By Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010. Pp. 216. $74.00 (cloth).

This book may be a challenge to many readers of this journal, as it was to me. It both invites and resists reviewing, in the end asking that the reader “try not to grasp” but rather “caress me” (186). Setting aside the “objective” realities of medieval sainthood and the contemporary porn industry, Burgwinkle and Howie attempt to theorize how representations of the exposed body elicit responses in the viewer, creating a community of viewed and viewing bodies. More a series of interconnected essays than a conventional study, the volume uses parataxis both as a stylistic device in its own construction and as a tool of rhetorical analysis. In alternate chapters the authors suggest that the bodies of medieval saints, like the bodies in contemporary male gay pornography, go beyond human endurance while they also “simultaneously solicit and withdraw from the gaze of their devotees” (2). Moving back and forth between fourteenth- and fifteenth-century texts and images of martyred medieval saints and “pornographic” twentieth-century Anglo-American films and images of male bodies, the authors suggest points of similarities and correspondences between erotic and religious spectatorship, culminating in the notion that representations of both medieval martyrdom and modern (gay) desire perch “on the verge,” that is, between closure and disclosure, abjection and transcendence, singularity and community, invincibility and death.

On the one hand, the book presents lavish, detailed, and realistic manuscript illustrations of the tortured bodies of medieval saints—saints having their breasts cut off or their bodies slashed, stabbed, or flayed—accompanied by the text of the saints’ lives, intended for personal devotional practice. On the other, it displays late twentieth-century photographs, films, and videos of naked male bodies in varying states of arousal and sexual activity, some of which deliberately appropriate medieval religious imagery. Moving beyond obvious differences in time period, intention, and genre, Burgwinkle and Howie point the reader to similarities in the representation of ineffable bodily experiences of pain and pleasure and beyond that to the equivocal responses elicited in the viewer.

Most grounded in medieval history is Burgwinkle’s chapter 3, in which he explicates a series of images accompanying the fourteenth-century French translations of the Legenda aurea and Vincent de Beauvais’s Speculum historiale, some of which are among the earliest to depict nude men and pubic hair. Startling in their violence and corporeality and designed for private meditation, the images mark the transgression of the saint, shocking the viewer into receptivity and a corresponding loss and recovery of self. In the following chapter, Howie applies a similar aesthetic to pornography as a genre, exploring how “an imaged or imagined body touches itself and, [End Page 300] thereby, touches us” in, for example, the photographs of gay male porn stars as saints by French artists Pierre et Gilles (122). (Howie’s series of puns in this chapter on the words “touch” and “hand” adds a welcome element of playfulness.)

Both authors converge in successive essays on the mystical/erotic experience and how it touches the viewer as well as the one undergoing it. Looking perhaps more toward the contemporary (including Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, among others) than the medieval, these chapters also provide readings of a life of Sancta Doucelina and Pietro Aretino’s life of Catherine of Alexandra, the first to reemphasize the fleshliness of the saint’s rapture, the second to reinforce the tension and suspense inherent as the saint hovers between life and death (“get it over with, but in the meantime make it last” [176]). Aretino is better known as the purported inventor of pornography than as a hagiographer, making his life of Catherine a fitting concluding text. Ultimately, the authors make a plea for a bringing a sense of transcendence into the everyday, including into the act of reading itself.

That late medieval sanctity was intensely physical in its sensibility and incorporated erotic...


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pp. 300-301
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